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Big projects are bankrupting our cities:Chuck Marohn says “It’s Time to Think Small”

October 17, 2019
By Chuck Marohn Jr. - Chronicle Guest View , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Cities love big, flashy, expensive projects and miles of infrastructure. But Charles L. Marohn, Jr., says this approach is a recipe for financial insolvency. Here, he explains why making small, incremental investments in struggling neighborhoods yields a far better payoff.

In America, it's ingrained in our culture to think big. So naturally, when we aim to "fix" our struggling towns and cities, we swing for the fences. We launch huge projects like new sports arenas, big box stores, and shiny new subdivisions. Problem is, we already lack the funds to take care of what we've got now, much less pay for the maintenance that will be needed for all those new buildings, pipelines, and roads in the future.

That's why Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., says better to forgo grand, expensive solutions in favor of "small bets" that make cities incrementally better.

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Chuck Marohn, Jr

"When we try to fix our cities by making them bigger and better, we are taking a short-sighted approach that discounts the way cities have evolved throughout history," says Marohn, author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.

The great cities of North America, like San Francisco, Chicago, and Manhattan, began as a series of pop-up shacks that grew slowly and organically over time. But the optimistic period immediately following WWII changed everything. We started building towns and cities in large leaps, envisioning the end condition and building all at once to a finished state.

But by skipping the messy iterations and jumping to what we perceive to be the perfect end we don't get to see in real time what works and what doesn't, he explains. We can't course correct and adapt. Decades later, when the things we've built fail, they fail catastrophically.

Marohn wants our towns and cities to break this cycle. He wants us to stop betting our futures on huge, irreversible projects and start taking small, incremental steps to better the declining neighborhoods that are our best generators of wealth. A few of his insights:

Small bets start with humility and love. We need to admit the experts don't know a better way than our ancestors did. Thinking they do has led us to the mess we're in now. We can't evolve incrementally if we don't have humility.

Leaders must get out of the office and walk among the people. And we mean literally walk. Identifying where people struggle requires a humble form of public engagement. Those making these investment decisions need to literally walk in the footsteps of the people they are serving.

"I walked with a mother who was pushing a stroller in the ditch," says Marohn. "She told me she needed to go to the grocery store, didn't have a car that day, didn't feel safe walking along the street, so she was taking the ditch, knee-high weeds and all. I observed the well-worn path she was treading and realized this was a struggle being shared with others."

Cities must commit to a simple, four-step investment approach. Marohn says his plan boils down to this:

1. Identify where people in the neighborhood struggle going about their daily routine.

2. Identify the next smallest thing that can be done today to address that struggle.

3. Do that thing. Do it right away.

4. Repeat the process.

In other words, see a streetlight out: replace it. See a crosswalk faded: repaint it. See a sidewalk broken: fix it. See a park with no shade trees: plant them. These small, inexpensive, low-risk investments will stop the long slide into decline and will, hopefully, increase the value of these neighborhoods exponentially. And if the gamble doesn't work, it is a very small gamble-one whose success or failure will be known in short order, and can be iterated upon next time around.

We must invest in financially productive neighborhoods first. Ironically, neighborhoods with depressed property values and low-income residents are often far more profitable for the local government than the ones where you'll find your most affluent citizens and businesses. In his book, Marohn "does the math" to show that an "old and blighted" block in his hometown of Brainerd, MN, generates 77 percent more property tax than a "shiny and new" block that the city is subsidizing with tax breaks. This is a bad investment and one that cities routinely make.

We must convert small, empty commercial spaces into wealth-building enterprises. High Point, NC, has a Walmart and a K-Mart on the edge of the city. With varying degrees of subsidy, the city and state installed tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure to make those stores possible. In contrast, the downtown has a small restaurant called Jimmy's Pizza. It is 350 percent more financially productive than the Walmart and 900 percent more productive than the K-Mart. It uses very little of the community's resources, it generates only a small amount of liability, and at a value of $3,450,000 an acre, it makes fantastic use of its space.

Marohn says cities should think beyond the non-descript, single-story, concrete block boxes you'll find in every traditional neighborhood and instead fill in the gaps in their development pattern with start-ups like Jimmy's. When cities support small upstart businesses like this, they change the entrepreneurial culture of the community. Owners like Jimmy put their money in local banks, use local services, advertise in the struggling local paper. In short, unlike the big box stores, they become a part of a local economic ecosystem.

"Our 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure," says Marohn. "The numbers don't work. It's time to focus on small bets. It's not a flashy, sexy approach; in fact, it's a boring one. But the confidence and initiative it creates in citizens is not boring-neither is the wealth it builds, and neither are the thriving communities that grow out of it."

About the Author:

Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., is the founder and president of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a professional engineer (PE) licensed in the state of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience.

He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's of urban and regional planning, both from the University of Minnesota. Marohn hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He is featured in the documentary film Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, and was named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen.

About Strong Towns:

Strong Towns is a national media organization whose mission is to advocate for a model of development that allows America's cities, towns, and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient.

Strong Towns began in 2008 as a blog written by Charles Marohn. Today, it is a nonprofit publishing daily content by dozens of contributors, sharing weekly podcasts, and giving presentations around the U.S. and Canada. Strong Towns reaches an audience of more than 1.5 million readers per year and has over 2,900 members. Learn more at



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